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Google changed everything! They changed everything in a way that most people don’t see or understand. Most people use Google to find things, they assume it is telepathic and all they have to do is type in a few simple words and Google will comb through the entire Internet and find them exactly what they’re looking for. Most people never get past the first page of results on Google. Well, it’s so popular, so many billions of searches are done on Google. Everybody who makes a thing, who has a service, wants a job, who needs or wants to be found, wants to be found by Google.
Google is a haystack, the biggest haystack in the history of the world and each of us who wants to be found, we’re needles. And so there’s a problem, there’s a challenge of getting found for a generic term. If I search for “Jon Jacob Kaberamaido Gregory” and Google does its job right, I will actually find Jon. But most of the time that’s not what people search for. Most of the time people aren’t sure what they’re looking for and they want Google to find it for them.
So, in every town there are 1000 tour operators with sharp elbows hoping that they will be the first match for the word safari and in every industry there are consultants or there are freelancers or there are companies big or small waiting to be found.
At the beginning, Google’s algorithm was pretty primitive it wasn’t particularly difficult to cheat your way to the front of the line, to play in ways that Google’s algorithm liked a lot and get more than your fair share of visits from the hordes of people searching for the likes of you. So we began this striation, the sedimentary approach.
People at the top, people in the middle, people at the bottom. Not because they are worthy, or because Google has done a site visit (crawl) or the travel board has verified them. But instead, because they got good at getting found. This is often called SEO, Search Engine Optimization.
SEO is a weird term: Optimizing who, optimizing what? Well the search engine is Google and what we’re optimizing is the way our website looks and feels and is seen by the other people in the world so that Google will pick us and it’s led to all sorts of weird side effects. People twisting themselves into not seeking to serve the customer but seeking to serve some sort of mythical wizard inside the box that calls itself Google.
Good read for later: You can not rely on only SEO for your customers to find you (5 min read)
I’ll get to that in just a second. At the beginning, the genius of Google’s algorithm was this: they didn’t rank pages based on what was on the page, they ranked pages based on what people who linked to the page were saying. So, if a lot of people linked to a page saying this is the best Hotel in all of Uganda then, if you search for “best hotel in Uganda” the Google algorithm should have found all the pages that keyword was pointing to.
If you wanted to be found then, the idea of writing blog posts that were often shared and spread made an awful lot of sense because instead of one website that just sat there all day every day the same, you are writing a blog about this and that.
I write my blog for the very reason that people are linking. I write so that people would spread the ideas. No ads on my blog, rare calls to action, that’s not what it’s for. What it’s for is to teach people, to show them something.
Another great read for later: Blogs; tapping into thousands of evangelists to tell your story (10 minute read)
What happened was, people who didn’t belong, for whatever reason they wanted to measure number one in anything decided that being number one was so valuable and they would spend their time and their money working to be number one as opposed to working to be better and working to serve people better. And thus, SEO developed a bad reputation.
The idea was for $1000 or $5000 or $50,000 or $100,000 you could game the system so that you would get more links than you “deserved”, that you are exposing many of the failings of the Google algorithm because human beings weren’t actually looking at your site.
Once it became worth millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars to be ranked number one in Google, an arms race began. That arms race brought in good operators, bad operators, people who were playing for the right reasons and people who weren’t.
But what we saw in all of the hotly contested areas, things like hotels or travel or things that we might buy or services or obscured terms, were people who were subverting the very idea behind the search engine.
It was then that Google made it interesting choice, I’m not sure what I would have done in their shoes, but it was a two part choice: they didn’t really understand how the algorithm began to work as it got too complicated. More than 3000 people were hand tweaking the way Google was scoring different pages, so Google pretended a: they know exactly how it worked and b: that no human beings were actually making these decisions, it was simply the algorithm.
‘Well, it’s not our fault you moved down, it’s the algorithm’. Or, ‘it’s not our fault that this term is number one in results, it’s the algorithm’.
At some level, this is nonsense. It also undermines their responsibility because once they are the middleman the monopoly on how people find stuff, they do have a responsibility to keep their promise and give the best possible results.
I think the key insight is this; you cannot trust that your needle is gonna get found in the haystack. You cannot trust that any generic word, the word you seek to own, African safari, shoe store, pick whichever one you want, is going to end up with you on top. And if you’re not on top, if you’re number 20 or #50 or #100, you might as well be invisible.
The alternative is to win when someone searches for you. So, if you look for Burt, you’ll find me. If you look for Burt Systems, you’ll definitely find me. If you look for ‘local travel operator’ you’ll find the people that operate tours and travel. So the game goes from: how do I persuade Google to find me when someone is looking for the generic to, how do I persuade the public to look for the specific, or my offer?
And so as we enter this post Google age where clearly there’s room for more than one winner for every noun, how do we have a chance to change the culture and the answer is this: change the people you engage with so much that they want to tell other people. Have them want to tell other people in the specific, not in the general.
So the mission is to write things, create things, post things, engage with things that people choose to share. To earn the permission of people they share them with. The permission to follow up, to teach, the permission to engage, then share some more, then teach some more and do it the way that people will share it again, and again. Each time earning you more permission because trusting the middle man on the Internet is a dangerous game .
If you are building your content on LinkedIn or Facebook, you’re sharecropping. You’re working for a landlord that does not care about you, that has no contractual obligation to keep their word. Anytime they can say “oh, you know all those people you have permission to talk to, your followers, your friends? We’re going to start charging you some money to reach them. Wanna boost this post?” That’s a lousy deal!
What we have to figure out how to do is engage with the platform that has an obligation to us. That is my relationship with this blog. It works because my job on the platform is to be a teacher, to teach, to make it easy for people to find me if they were looking for me not looking for the generic but looking for the specific. And then, to earn their attention and trust and to keep a promise. Anticipated personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them, drip by drip, day by day.
So I’m grateful to all the people who work so hard to help me build this platform for my blog. But way more important than that, I’m encouraging each one of you to have one. Not to have a blog ’cause you’ll make money, because you probably won’t. Not to have a blog because you’ll have millions and millions of readers, you probably won’t. But to have a blog because of the discipline it gives you to know that you’re going to write something tomorrow. Something that might not be read by many people, doesn’t matter, it will be read by you.
And if you can build that up, 10 at a time, 20 at a time, a month at a time, day-by-day you will begin to think more clearly. You will make predictions, assertions, connections and there they will be in type for you to look at a month or a year later.
This practice of sharing our ideas to people who will then choose or not choose to share them helps us get out of our own head. It’s no longer the narrative inside, it’s the narrative outside. The narrative that you’ve typed up, that you’ve cared enough to share.
So, SEO is fine. If you win at SEO, congratulations! I’ll send you an emoji, maybe a medal and a ribbon. It’s great someone needs to win on every single noun anyone could search on but it might not be you, it probably won’t be you. The odds are against it being you.
A 12 year old probably shouldn’t grow up saying I will not be happy unless I’m the champion of the world at this sport or that thing because the odds are too long. It’s not worth betting your happiness on.
If we’re going to change the culture, we’ll have to figure out how to bypass the generic Google search and instead reach a few, the smallest viable audience. The group of people we seek to serve, to connect those people with each other and with their ideas in such a way that we become the specific not the generic. Because if you are specific enough and generous enough and consistent enough, it’s worth the journey.
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